Omaggio Berio – Electronic Berio

Thema (Omaggio a Joyce)
In the Leap Second [World premiere; presented in collaboration with video artist Christos Zinas]
A Portrait [Film: Chris Ruffatto, director; Catherine Lutes, cinematographer]

Milton Mermikedes – Technical Supervision


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 April, 2004
Venue: David Josefowitz Recital Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London

Good to find Berio’s electronic output – ranking with that of Stockhausen and Nono as the most durable by one of the 1950s generation – given its due in the Omaggio retrospective. Moreover, the three works were well chosen to illustrate the changing requirements of electronic composition at that crucial time when pure (i.e. – sine-tone based) electronics were giving way to montage and – later still – live interaction.

Already in Thema: Omaggio a Joyce (1958), Berio is deriving his material from the ‘real world’: here, a spoken extract from Ulysses – characterfully rendered by Cathy Berberian, before being broken into its phonetic components and reconfigured along acoustic and linguistic lines. Rather more entertaining than Momenti (1960) – Berio’s final purely electronic piece, sounding dour and grittily unattractive. Deterioration of the master tape may partly be to blame, but in the light of so effortless and effervescent a tape-piece as Ligeti’s Artikulation from three years earlier, it was clearly time for a change of tack.

That change is realised mesmerically in Visage (1962) – a 17-minute investigation of (to quote the composer) “a parabola from the failure of communication, through trivial conversation, to serious emotion, and ultimately to song”. Multi-lingual and multi-faceted in its traversal of human emotion – the powers that be at the RAI studios apparently judged it obscene! – Visage ranks high among Berio’s compositions in any medium, and a template for most subsequent exploration (or should that be exploitation!) of human behaviour.

This being the Royal Academy, space was made for works by two post-graduate composers. Artem Vassiliev’s In the Leap Second achieved little more than to co-ordinate a cumulatively intensifying soundtrack with video images of accelerating velocity, but Andrew W. Morgan’s A Portrait (given by its working-title Face in the programme) utilised a range of (mostly!) subtle transformations of facial sounds (apparently those resulting from blinking the eyes, wrinkling of eyebrows etc; such as can only be heard by a microphone placed directly on the surface of the skin) allied to an imaginative film in which mutants gain for themselves a photographic identity. Disturbing and entertaining in equal measure – but Berio would likely have been amused.

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